I’m sorry, ma’am. You two aren’t compatible. Your request is denied.
The last words Jhenai ever heard in a medic bay rang through her ears. It’d been five years. And much like she watched two medic couple, a husband and wife, stand from the transparent desk and walk away, leaving her sitting there like a fool, she stared at the sea of drones rolling under Honn and Booker, while the ones on top continued with their life-saving efforts.
As the drones were a new model, she wondered if they were tapping into the super-speed powers to help the couple heal or simply using another method.
In another life, she might have asked. But right now, she marched on behind Caleb, feeling dead inside.
The final airlock sounded and two giant doors rolled into the walls, allowing them entry into the massive dome.
Jhenai watched the path of Hal’s footsteps. His movements were smooth. And he didn’t walk like her husband.
A scream closed in. Evan Mortice.
Five drones, clinging to the back of Jhenai’s former coat, carried the man to them much like an unwelcomed delivery from a stork.
Seven rejuvenation pods to the right made the room resemble a garage and not a hospital.
When some drones broke off from under Booker and flocked Caleb, Jhenai allowed herself some relief. Caleb stopped in the center of the room, flashing the barcode on his right shoulder with his credentials.
She was so focused on him that she didn’t see when a set of drones approached her. They were simply there one minute, flashing red and green lights between one another like panicked ants set about a task.
The protocol they communicated said a massive injury needed repairs.
Maybe it was a bug. Other than her itchy temple taking her focus, she was fine. She scratched once, surprised to see the red tinge on her fingertips. Dried blood. Her actions disturbed it, forcing red to pool on her brow then fall before her eyes.
Her head began to pound.
Electronic paper in hand, Hal stood before Evan Mortice’s hanging frame, taking notes. He paused in his task and glanced back at her. Some barked orders from his mouth had the drones scattering without giving her aid.
Caleb’s repairs ended. Jhenai meant to check on him. When she moved, that was her goal. That wasn’t where she ended up. Instead, her feet took her towards Hal who held Evan Mortice by the chest, back pressed against the wall as the little servant bots obeyed his commands and affixed him there.
The transparent desk close to Evan Mortice was the same blasted design Jhenai watched years ago when her body refused to accept the reality presented before her.
I’m sorry, ma’am. You two aren’t compatible. Your request is denied.
We’ve scheduled you for tomorrow. Please report in and allow for the fetus’s immediate removal, the other medic—the man—had said.
A warm hand slipped into Jhenai’s grip at the time, squeezing. She pulled away.
If you wanna run, we can run, Hal’d said.
But there was no running. No. Jhenai kept her appointment, something she’d never forgiven herself for. But when it happened again last year, they had run.
And they hadn’t gotten far.
No medic had to take anything out—her body rejected it instead.
That had been hell. And not just for the pain. But for what it took from Hal, because he never recovered from losing the baby he was sure would be a son.
Her name snapped her back to reality. Everyone in attendance stared at her.
Booker and Honn rested in two beds to the left, but on the main holo-screen above Hal’s desk hung something unreal.
“Is—is that me?” Jhenai asked.
The gravel in Hal’s voice wasn’t lost on her. “That is Theresa Mayfield. Your great grandmother. The oldest person’s world record holder.” Hal flicked his index and the image switched, revealing another identical face. “And this is Evette Suarez.”
Evan Mortice, albeit dazed, marveled, “They’re identical.”
Once again, the silver helmet hid Hal’s face, but not his anger. “Another world record holder.”
At the next flashing image, Jhenai blinked herself awake. “What is this?”
Instead of an aged face, a girl appeared, no more than sixteen.
Hal let out a grunt. “That would be Jane Nailen.” His head rotated to Jhenai’s direction. “And it’s got a message.”
Jhenai swallowed hard.
“Hello, Milo. Bet you’re surprised to see me this way. But I’ve got news for you, you won’t be seeing me again. I’ve cracked your implant and I’ve stopped your reincarnation code you’ve put in. In your own twisted way, I’m sure you saw this as love. Know that this time, I don’t remember you. I only have the notes and recordings from Theresa and the others to help me piece everything together. Whenever we’d died, a baby crawled from the body, full memories and all. It drove Evette mad. You caused that. Because you couldn’t bear to be alone. But now you are alone, Milo. Evan Mortice was right about you—you are a pathetic nobody. A nobody who couldn’t let her go. But I don’t remember you; I don’t remember any of it and that’s because I’ve changed the code. Reincarnation is no longer my power. I have flight now. My daughter looks just like me, I know, but the DNA is different. I’ve lived my life free of knowing you. She won’t even know your name. Do you understand that? Do you understand that Theresa’s dead? And to me, so are you.”
The image faded, the shock still so gripping that Jhenai could hardly move.
A tear crossed her cheek, but she swallowed the rest back.
Life. That woman’d had an infinite amount—and she’d given it away.
Caleb was the first to find his voice. “Did….” He looked from Hal to Jhenai and back again. “Did she just say she could change the code of an active implant? She could change our power?”
Hal stared down at the desk, waving his hand again and again. “Jane Nailen lived to be twenty and she knew she was on a timer because she had her affairs in order. Her powers maxed out at nineteen and at twenty—”
“Stop,” Jhenai pleaded. She didn’t need the reminder of how her mother died when she was five years old; she’d seen it. They were walking home side-by-side one minute, and the next the warm hand slipped away and a pensive expression formed as her mother rose into the sky. She was gone for so long that Jhenai began to cry. Then something slammed into the street a few feet away, blood and ice everywhere.
There was no reincarnation from that.
And that woman had given this to Jhenai—given her this fate with intention. She’d changed the damn implant’s function.
Jhenai felt hollow. The pounding in her head grew, squeezing her temple like a vice but that didn’t matter. She felt empty.
That face came to her again and it’d been a face she’d seen in nightmares. Herself, slipping away, drifting into the sky, rising higher until death dragged her back to collide with pure asphalt so fast that even the mangled bits were unrecognizable.
Her knees trembled. Because it wasn’t her imagination or some irrational fear lingering in the back of her mind. It was real, and it was a reality gifted to her.
Not a day went by since five years old that she didn’t fear each step she took from a secure building or dome. Not one.
“She did it on purpose,” Jhenai told herself. The first drop of blood, pooling on her temple, fell to the floor and the service bots buzzed to life.
But when she looked up from her hunch, a shadow fell over her. Hal stood close.
She was thankful to not see his face. Caleb remained off to the side, perhaps willing her to stop being so weak.
A metal hand extended for her and she slapped it aside. Even this. Even all this and what she’d done to ensure her entire life wouldn’t extend past a small cylinder for the rest of her life.
Only the thought that it was worth it kept her going. But now…now she could see her efforts for what they were.
“She did it on purpose,” Jhenai marveled again. All her attempts at standing up and looking ‘together’ were in vain; she couldn’t move.
Hal stood, unflinching. Caleb watched them, equally as stoic. She wondered what he was processing, either of them.
And what did this mean for her? Until five minutes ago, she’d known only one thing, her fate had been unavoidable. Her mother died from flight-failure, as did all her family. Her grandmother as well, and even her great-grandmother. But that was a lie.
They’d had life—they’d had immortality and they stripped it from her and left uncertainty behind and she never had a say in it.
A long exhale had Jhenai shaking so violently she feared less for what Caleb thought of her, and more so for what she’d do.
Eight weeks. She had eight weeks left before her powers maxed and it wouldn’t be a one-year hiatus before she’d lose control and float away. It’d be hours—she was well past twenty.
The next feel of cold steel on her temple lit her up with anger.
And for what? For this asshole.
She shoved Hal’s hand away, but not far. “Don’t touch me.”
“You need stitches,” he informed, as cold as ever. “It won’t take long.”
He ignored her request and she used both hands to shove him away. “Don’t touch me!”
She wasn’t at all surprised that he only took a step back despite her using her entire bodyweight for the effort. He outweighed her ten times over.
This was stupid. And it was stupider because her efforts to stand only had her hunched over again, gasping for breath.
But when he touched her, he was proving her right. Hal was gone; he wasn’t coming back, and she’d die the moment of her release from a little human-sized capsule prison cell.
He’d die. He’d become like Barron. They both knew it and that was the source of his anger. She’d prayed it was that and not something more logical—that he was simply gone and she refused to let go of him.
“So what did I do this for?” she asked herself. “Huh? What did I do this for? I’ve wasted what precious time I’ve got left. And for what?” When she picked her head up to witness the machine before her, she wanted to spit. “What the hell did I do this for! For you? For me? For some family we’d never have? Huh? What!”
Hal gave no response for some time before he answered, “Maybe for your ego?”
Something inside her broke. “I’m going to be in my little cell for fifty years after this and that’s all you can say?”
“What do you want me to say, Jhen? Just tell me so we can put this behind us.” Despite the tepid metal of his armor, his voice vibrated. “You didn’t give me a choice!”
Another tear fell and Jhenai lost the power to respond. Instead, she braced on her knees once more, drawing in ragged breaths. He’d hurt her and he’d hurt her this strongly…because he’d been right.
Hal’d made peace with his existence coming to an end. He’d prepared for it, and she hadn’t honored his decision.
But it wasn’t ego—it hadn’t been. Everything in her said this would save him somehow—that this would work. At the time, she couldn’t think beyond it. The last five months came back in a flash and she hated herself all over again. It had been too sudden. He’d been stable, she’d been stable. And then she’d lost the baby and her usually cool and level-headed husband went into a spiral. The deterioration was so fast she’d panicked. It was just too sudden.
Now with everything rehashed, she feared something else—had it been ego?
A warm hand held her face next and she shivered. It was unlike Caleb to touch her this way in front of others.
But this skin-color was darker and she followed the strong arm to the blue medic tattoo on Hal’s bare shoulder. Her body barely kept itself from collapsing by the time she picked her head up to see the human half of him that remained. As surprised as she was that he’d allowed her to see how far the AI had integrated, she was beyond shocked that he’d show that to others.
His right arm sported metal, as did most of his torso but he was still flesh and blood on the left, at least for now. She meant to keep her composure but her body leapt at him and he pulled her to him with his working arm.
The helmet gone, he curved around her, speaking into the top of her head. “I’ve got you. But let me patch you up. Please.”
He was much taller now than when he was pure flesh and blood but she didn’t mind it.
“It said eight. I’ve only got eight,” she muttered, biting back a sob. “I could have had eternity!”
“I know.” The metal arm wrapped around her as well. “But she had her reasons. I firmly believe that.” He pulled her closer to his left side. It felt like ages since she’d felt his body this way again. “And I know you did, too. I’m sorry for what I said. I’m sorry. So let me get that cut sewn up. Please.”
“Hey,” a voice called. “Hey!” All eyes trained on Evan Mortice who said, “I bet you my nutsack that wasn’t the first time that message was played.”
Caleb grunted. “With or without the fucking warts?”
Evan managed to show his middle fingers despite being crucified to a wall.
“He’s right,” Hal admitted. He stared ahead, eyes unfocusing as he ran his findings against the central database. “Not the first or last. It was played again and again.”
“Right,” Evan affirmed, “because you morons got played! Six months? You telling me you had Milo mucking about here for six months? You have a guy, who wants superpowers more than his next blowjob running around here freely for six months and thought that was a good idea?”